Mentor and protege
The close political relationship between Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove
By Sarah Ward
As the much maligned Rwanda policy and the treatment of asylum seekers thrusts the Northamptonshire pair onto the national media scene we take a look at the long political friendship between the MPs for Corby and Wellingborough
The Pizzeria Venezia Italian restaurant on Church Street in Rushden is a favourite dining haunt for Conservative MPs Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove.
It is here that they have often had a dinner, especially during election campaigns, chewing over the findings on the doorstep and masterminding their next move.
At 69 and MP for Wellingborough for the past 17 years, Essex-born Bone is now a parliamentary old timer and a familiar face to many with regular national media appearances in recent months to either defend prime minister Boris Johnson or back the government’s controversial Rwanda deportation policy.
According to sources close to the local Conservative association, it was Bone who promoted Pursglove, 24, who as an 18 year old had become Wellingborough Borough Council’s youngest ever councillor, as prospective parliamentary candidate for the Corby and East Northants seat in the 2015 General Election. At this time Pursglove was working for Daventry MP (and now Government chief whip) Chris Heaton Harris. He had previously worked in Bone’s parliamentary office.
A former councillor who served on the Wellingborough council at the same time as Pursglove said:
“Bone has always been his mentor. I’m sure he arranged for him to be the candidate.
“As a young councillor, even at 18 he’d got the gift of the gab -we all thought he was a bit of a joke to honest as he often didn’t know what he was talking about, but he’d always got an opinion and was always right wing, always following the Peter Bone line. I don’t ever remember any disagreement with Bone at all. They’ve always been as thick as thieves.”
A Conservative insider said:
“Peter Bone said that if he didn’t have Tom Pursglove standing in Corby he would not help that election. But on the other hand he said ‘if you the party chose to select Tom Pursglove as the candidate I will win that election’. So the party thought, knowing how crucial Corby is they went with that and consequently everyone concentrated on getting Tom Pursglove elected in Corby.
“At every opportunity Bone has pushed him and helped him on his way.”
Bone, who then had a comfortable majority of more than 11,000 took time out of campaigning in his own next door constituency of Wellingborough and Rushden to give his backing to the young Conservative hopeful and accompanied him on the campaign trail.
Pursglove was elected at his first go, beating Labour’s serving MP Andy Sawford with 2,412 more votes and since then he has won a further two elections. His current majority is more than 10,000 - although recent polling predicts that both he and Bone could be at risk of losing their seat at the next election if the Boris backlash continues.
We understand the two MPs used to often travel down to Westminster together in the same car on Monday mornings where they would spend most of the week before travelling back to the constituency on Thursday evenings or Fridays. They would then often coordinate their campaigning at the same places, despite representing different areas. They have called this their listening campaign.
One source who has worked closely with the pair said they argued and would occasionally fall out, describing it as ‘like a father and son relationship’.
Political beliefs and joint campaigns
The pair have often combined their political might and campaigned on the same issues going back as far as 2014 when Pursglove was a local councillor and prospective MP.
Along with ally and fellow Eurosceptic Kettering MP Philip Hollobone they launched the In-Out Northamptonshire referendum urging then PM David Cameron to follow through on his promise and hold a referendum about whether the country should stay in the European Union.
They got their way after Cameron announced a referendum about the future of Britain’s future in the European Union in 2016 and they formed Grassroots Out - backed by UKIP and Tory donors. They toured the country with UKIP’s Nigel Farage but lost out on becoming the official Brexit campaign to Dominic Cummings Vote Leave group. Their long fought Brexit battle was won in June of that year.
During the campaign donor Arron Banks said he was ‘extremely shocked and disappointed’ to find the pair had profited from grassroots out (paying themselves around £20,000 each for their efforts) and they said in response that their efforts had allowed the campaign to be run cheaply compared to other leave organisations.
After a first junior job in Theresa May’s government as parliamentary private secretary to immigration minister Robert Goodhill, Pursglove then had a role as Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party for Youth, but resigned from this so he could vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal in spring 2018. He was given an assistant whip position in Boris Johnson’s government and last September he was promoted as a home office minister and it is in this role that he has become a more recognisable national figure, sometimes being mocked by certain elements of the press for some interesting interviews.
His interview with GMTV’s Adil Ray was much talked about and has been watched on You Tube more than 84,000 times.
In contrast to Pursglove’s government career, Bone is the perennial backbencher - an ardent critic of Cameron’s coalition but now chief among Boris’ backers.
He used to be renowned for using his then wife Jenny as a character in his parliamentary anecdotes. The couple are now divorced (although Jenny Bone still works in his parliamentary office and is a local councillor) and in recent months he has referenced his partner (and former employee) Helen Harrison in his parliamentary speeches.
Local government influence
The two MPs appear to have a close relationship with North Northamptonshire Council’s leader Cllr Jason Smithers, and dinners involving the three and other local senior councillors at the favoured Pizzeria Venezia are said to have been had.
When the Conservative run county council hit the buffers in spring 2018 and went bankrupt after years of financial mismanagement, the county’s seven Conservative MPs stood back from the scandal (which travelled as far as a report in the New York Times).
After her resignation then county council leader Heather Smith accused the county’s seven MPs of ‘shameful bullying’ and claimed they had done nothing to support the ailing authority, whose political leaders had been calling for more cash from government.
In December 2017, just months before the collapse of the council Bone had brought up the suggestion of reorganising the local council set up in Northamptonshire.
He asked in parliament:
“In the light of the county council’s financial situation, would the Minister be keen to look at emerging proposals from across Northamptonshire about how local government might be better restructured?
A Conservative insider told NN Journal Bone had long been in favour of a unitary system.
What is certain is that the pair have close ties into the new North Northamptonshire unitary council which covers both of their constituencies and is led by Conservative councillor Jason Smithers.
Cllr Smithers is often in attendance at photo opportunities with the two MPs and Bones’s partner Helen Harrison is the executive member for adult social care while Pursglove’s parliamentary assistant Harriet Pentland is the executive member for environment.
Former East Northamptonshire Councillors Andy Mercer and Stephen North, who have both worked closely with Bone have also held executive positions, although both have now stood down for personal reasons.
A source said:
“They’ve got the council sewn up. They really are political control freaks.”
The MPs also regularly have meetings with the local authority’s chief executive Rob Bridge. Since the council began last May the pair have met with the chief executive several times. (The county’s other five MPs have also been meeting with the chief executives of both unitary authorities during this time).
NN Journal has asked for the minutes of these meetings, but has been told they are not minuted. The West unitary media office said rather notes are taken and actioned.
One source who is an elected councillor told us they did not think this should be happening. They said:
“I think it’s wrong. MPs are responsible for being our voice in Westminster but it shouldn't be the case that Westminster policies be forced through or influence a huge unitary council.”
Having a go at the European Convention on Human Rights appears to be next on the agenda for the pairing.
Back in 2012 Bone talked about wanting the UK government to revoke it and in recent weeks Pursglove has been referencing the ECHR in his parliamentary debates, appearing on GB news recently with one time ally Nigel Farage to discuss the issue.
Another common point of conversation in local political circles is that Bone is hoping for a peerage and to cross over to the house of Lords.
We asked both MPs for an interview about their political relationship but they have not responded.